Social media has been abuzz this week with the posting, tagging and sharing of links to ‘Kony 2012’, a short film (or very long commercial) made by the American non-government organisation (NGO), Invisible Children. It was produced to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and to raise the public profile of the NGO itself.
The film is creative, compelling and touching. As a testament to that fact, millions of people on YouTube alone have watched it. [i]
Joseph Kony is at the top of the International Criminal Court’s Most Wanted list. He faces charges of crimes against humanity including, but not limited to, the conscription, training and use of children as soldiers in the LRA.[ii]
With the aid of celebrities, public officials and people power, Invisible Children hope to “make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”[iii]
Bringing Joseph Kony to justice is a worthy aim: he is a bad, if not the worst, specimen of human being. However, some pretty darn ugly questions over the NGO’s integrity threaten to undermine the cause.
There is the accusation that the film’s portrayal of the situation in Uganda is disingenuous. ‘Kony 2012’ failed to mention that the US administration’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) has previously tried to hunt down and capture Joseph Kony.[iv] Not only have they failed to capture him, but their Kony-related operations were the catalyst for reprisal attacks by the LRA.[v]
The film also suggests that Joseph Kony is still in action in Uganda. The fact is that he is not – and hasn’t been for over six years.[vi] While his exact location is unknown, it is believed that he and the LRA have been driven out of Uganda by the lesser of two evils: the Ugandan Defence Forces, themselves accused of human rights abuses and war crimes.[vii] Clearly, the film’s feel-good nature masks the complex realities at play in Uganda and the American effort to capture Kony.
The cultural undertones of the film’s message also risk undermining the integrity of the cause.[viii] The film’s motivations bear an uncomfortable parallel with ‘the White Man’s Burden’: a ‘civilising’ rationale for intervention in foreign affairs. As Chris Blattman, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Economics at Yale, commented in 2009 regarding the organisation, “The [saviour] attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.”[ix]
So, should they have been more politically correct? Perhaps, because there’s nothing more awkward than that moment when you’re called a white colonialist. But realistically, if they went for the ‘soft’ approach their idea would not have the implicit ‘quick solution’ that is so engaging and exciting, and they could appear feeble, white middle-class hipsters.
Also working against Invisible Children and ‘Kony 2012’ are suspicions surrounding the legitimacy of the organisation itself. Prospective donors might care to examine its the financial and corporate governance record. Last financial year (2010-2011) Invisible Children spent $8,676,614, yet only 32% went to direct services.[xi] In addition, an independent monitor of charities in the US, Charity Navigator, has rated Invisible Children only two out of four stars for transparency and accountability.[xii]
The lesson from this is not peculiar to the Invisible Children case: be smart about how you donate your money.[xiii] At least they are fairly open about what they offer: film-making for public advocacy of social justice issues. They leave the building of schools and infrastructure in Africa to other, more specialist NGOs.
Invisible Children is not a model organisation, but the cause of bringing international war criminals to justice is legitimate, and the group has done more for public awareness of the issue than Bono, USAID or AusAID could ever hope to achieve. The hype hides much of the reality, and ‘Kony 2012’ should be taken with a big lump of salt. The solution that the film advocates is not new, but, understandably, Invisible Children do not want such a personal project to be put in the ‘too hard’ basket.